The 5 Most Important U.S. GDP Statistics and How to Use Them

The 5 GDP Statistics You Need to Know

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Personal consumption drives nearly 70% of U.S. GDP. Photo: Getty Images

Gross domestic product measures a country's economic output. There are five GDP statistics that give you the best snapshot of the health of the United States economy. 

U.S. GDP is the most important economic indicator because it tells you the health of the economy. The U.S. debt to GDP ratio describes whether America produces enough each year to pay off its national debt.  U.S. real GDP corrects for changes in prices.

The GDP growth rate measures how fast the economy is growing. U.S. real GDP per capita describes the standard of living of Americans.

1. U.S. GDP 

U.S. GDP was $19.007 trillion in the first quarter 2017. What exactly does this mean? The gross domestic product of the United States of America ran at a rate of $19.007 trillion a year from January through March 2017. This statistic is also known as nominal GDP. (Source: "National Income and Product Accounts Interactive Data, Table 1.1.5. Gross Domestic Product," U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.)

U.S. GDP is the economic output of the entire country. It includes goods and services produced in the United States, regardless of whether the company is foreign-owned, or the person providing the service is a U.S. citizen. To find out the total economic output for all American citizens and companies, regardless of their geographic location, you'd want to look at U.S. gross national product, also known as gross national income.

There are four components of GDP:

  1. Personal Consumption Expenditures - All the goods and services produced for household use. This is almost 70 percent of total GDP.
  2. Business Investment - Goods and services purchased by the private sector.
  3. Government Spending - Includes federal, state and local governments.
  1. Net Exports - The dollar value of total exports minus total imports.

2. Debt to GDP Ratio

The U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is 104 percent. That's the $19.846 trillion U.S. debt as of March 31, 2017, (which is the end of Q1 2017) divided by the $19.007 trillion nominal GDP.  (Source: "Debt to the Penny," U.S. Treasury Department.)

This debt level is too high. The World Bank says that debt that's greater than 77 percent is past the "tipping point." That's when holders of the nation's debt worry that it won't be repaid. They demand higher interest rates to compensate for the additional risk. When interest rates climb, economic growth slows. That makes it more difficult for the country to repay its debt. The United States has avoided this fate so far because it is one of the strongest economies in the world. (Source: "Finding the Tipping Point," The World Bank.)

The only other time the debt-to-GDP ratio was this high was to fund World War II. Following that, it remained at a safe level until the 2008 financial crisis. That's when the combination of lower taxes and higher government spending pushed the debt-to-GDP ratio to unsafe levels. For each year's U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio since 1930, see National Debt by Year.

3. Real GDP

U.S. real GDP was $16.842 trillion for Q1 2017. This measure takes nominal GDP, quoted above, and strips out the effects of inflation. That's why it's usually lower than nominal GDP. 

It's the best statistic to compare U.S. output year-over-year. That's why it's used to calculate the GDP growth rate. It's also used to calculate GDP per capita.  (Source: National Income and Product Accounts Interactive Data, Table 1.1.6. Real Gross Domestic Product, Chained Dollars, Bureau of Economic Analysis)

4. GDP Growth Rate

The U.S. GDP growth rate was 0.7 percent for Q1 2017. This indicator measures the percent increase in economic output since the last quarter or year. It's the best way to assess U.S. economic growth. For more, see Current GDP Statistics. To compare to prior years, see U.S. GDP History.

5. GDP per Capita

In 2016, the U.S. real GDP per capita was $57,300. This indicator tells you the economic output by person. It's the best way to compare GDP between different countries. For that reason, it must use purchasing power parity to measure GDP. This levels the playing field between countries because it compares a basket of similar good, taking out the effects of exchange rates.  For how the United States compares to other countries, see GDP per Capita.  (Source: CIA World Factbook.) 

GDP In Depth